On Philosophy

May 19, 2007

Some Thoughts About Language

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:06 am

Let me explain briefly what I consider the best model of how this thing we call communication works. Consider the following diagram:

At stage 1 person A is thinking about Q. Q, let us suppose, is something external to them. And so to say that they are thinking about Q is to say that they are in some particular kind of mental state (dashed-Q) that intentionally directs them at (dashed arrow) Q. The blue box represents their emotional state, in this case that they are favorably disposed towards Q. At stage 1 person B is thinking about some different object, M, which they are neutrally disposed towards. At stage 2 person A decides they wish to direct person B’s thoughts towards Q (Q may be some complex state of affairs, not necessarily a single object). To do this they make some utterance φ. φ is a completely physical phenomena; in the case of average human communication φ is usually sound waves or a some optical pattern (writing), but it of course doesn’t have to be limited to these possibilities. At stage 3, upon being affected by φ the content of person B’s mental state changes to dash-Q, and they become intentionally directed at Q. Note that how person B’s mental state changes upon being affected by φ may depend on their current mental state; which is to say that the meaning of a particular communication may be affected by context. Stages 2b and 3b detail an alternate process in which Ψ is used to communicate instead. Ψ represents emotionally charged language, not only does it put person B into a dashed-Q type mental state but is positively disposes them towards Q as well.

Given this model of communication what is language? One simple suggestion is to say that what counts as language for a particular person is anything that will reliably put them into a certain world-directed mental state upon being exposed to it. Certainly this captures what we usually think of as language, such as words, but it goes a little too far. If wheat fields regularly make me think of Kansas then that too would be considered part of the language I understand, under this definition. Now is a sense this is correct, because if you knew that wheat fields made me think of Kansas you might be able to use that fact to communicate to me about Kansas in a very non-standard way. However this isn’t what we usually mean by language. We thus restrict language to those things that dispose two or more people to adopt similar world-directed mental states (similar in that they are directed at the same thing, or at the same possible thing). And then we subtract away the trivial cases of the sensory inputs which are usually associated with those things.

Now that we understand what a language is we can move on to the more pressing question of what the meaning of particular pieces of language are. Of course I’m not looking for an explanation of particular meanings, such as dekimasu means “to be able” in Japanese, but rather of what in general meaning is. There are two schools of thought about this issue. One is that the meaning is identical with the kind of mental state it disposes the listener to be in; this is the understanding of meaning I am partial to. The other position is that meaning is to be identified solely with reference, and that other regularities in the effects it has upon the listener are to be thought of as connotations that are separate from, and thus do not have an effect on, the meaning.

Consider the theory that meaning just is reference. Now suppose that in a language L1 we had the expression “Antarctica refers to the continent at the south pole”. If meaning just is reference then if we replace expressions in L1 by those that refer to the same thing as expressions in another language, L2, and we transform the syntax appropriately, then the two sentences should mean the same thing, even though they are in different languages. We do this translation and we come up with “Antarctica refers to Antarctica” in L2. Clearly this doesn’t mean the same thing, even though our translation preserved reference (note: the point is not that we can’t translate it “correctly”, the point is that it is claimed that the incorrect translation and the correct translation have the same meaning). A partial solution to this problem is to realize that the original sentence is somewhat meta-linguistic, that what it is really saying is that “‘Antarctica’ refers to ‘the continent at the south pole’”, meaning that this is an instance of language talking about language and asserting that something about those fragments of language is similar, namely that they refer to the same thing. This helps somewhat, but our program of treating meaning as reference then runs into another problem. Specifically the original sentence refers to linguistic objects in L1; so if we translate it strictly into L2 then we are left with a sentence in L2 that makes claims about fragments of language L1. Clearly this, in one sense, has the same meaning. But in another sense it is a failure because we haven’t finished our translation. If meaning really is reference then we should be able to get an analogous sentence in L2 which makes claims about fragments of language L2 with the same meaning as the original fragments of L1. But then we run into the previous problem, where our theory of meaning asserts that “Antarctica” in L2 has the same meaning as both “Antarctica” and “the continent at the south pole” in L1.

To resolve these problems the defenders of the theory that meaning is reference invoke possible worlds to explain how “Antarctica” refers to something different from “the continent at the south pole”. I have already stated previously why I don’t think invoking possible worlds really solves the problem, so I won’t repeat myself here. However, I would like to point out that given our model of language invoking possible worlds seems completely ad-hoc. In the diagram above we have a clear and complete picture of how language works that doesn’t involve possible worlds of any kind. All that is missing from it is a label pointing to what meaning it. The only reason that possible worlds are introduced into this picture is because certain philosophers want to label the intentional arrow, or Q itself, as meaning. And to free this labeling from certain problems they introduce possible worlds, greatly complicating the intentional arrow (since now it points at a vast set of Qs), and adding a number of other new twists into the picture. This strikes me as methodologically backwards. If our model is sufficient to explain and understand communication/language then we should alter our understanding of meaning to fit our best explanation of language, not introduce more complicated explanations that don’t add to our understanding of communication or language in the least only to defend certain intuitions. And in contrast identifying meaning with the kind of mental state it tends to put the listener in suffers from none of these problems. “Antarctica” cannot be freely substituted for the phrase “the continent at the south pole”. And we don’t have to add anything more to our understanding of how language works.



  1. The model represents your argument succinctly. I agree that the representation of Antarctica, Q, is separate of Antarctica itself, “the continent at the south pole”. I agree that the “model is sufficient to explain and understand communication/language”; however, I do not agree that one ought alter her understanding of meaning to fit a paradigm of language explanation because the paradigm proves correct under other certain circumstances.

    I believe that if one were to accurately diagnose the problem, it would result as a function of connotation. In order to acquire a more founded position from which to argue your theory, I believe that the model should gain the section 1b. This addition would entail figure B having its own Q, a representation of Antarctica. In doing so the portrayal of propriety of such representations would better support the subsequent models. That is, your analysis would be more whole.

    For lack of my own model, suppose this: figure B of model section 1b has its own Q, call it X. Suppose X extends (as a dotted arrow) up and to the right so as to represent an entity similar but separate of figure A’s Q. When figure A relays its representation of Antarctica, Q, to figure B in model section 2a, the result would be the addition of Q to X, assuming continuity with X and the models thereafter would remain. This displaces X but does not alter either Q or X. So once figure A relates Q to figure B by way of explanation, they may share a common understanding. This is represented in model section 3a. Figure B’s understanding of Antarctica as X is now displaced but neither erased nor substituted by figure A’s representation of Antarctica, Q. Instead, figure B now has two options.

    Alternatively, if figure A of model section 2b connotes its representation of Antarctica, Q, and therein influences figure B, X is pushed aside by Q. Thus model section 3b represents the agreement of Antarctica as Q for both figures A and B. This would combine the representations of Antarctica to result in Q agreement and Q/X remnants of disagreement. That means that in model section 3a, figure B has a shared and agreed understanding of Q; however, the possibility of X remains somewhere in the anterior. Such a possibility brings forth the notion of abstract, concurrent yet incongruent representations of Antarctica, Q. This could be possible reason for miscommunication on an anterior level; a sort of subconscious recognition of alternatives, which, in turn, could skew the shared understanding of Q. It seems almost schizophrenic.

    What does this mean? We do have to add more to our understanding of how language works! Simple is sometimes the solution but underestimation can often trump inexperience.

    Comment by leisurelylingual — May 19, 2007 @ 12:30 pm

  2. You have misunderstood the diagram. Q in the diagram is the real actually existing thing. Dash-Q is the representation of Q. Obviously dash-Q as found in A is different from that found in B; however they share significant and important similarities which result in A and B being intentionally directed at the same object. The problems you bring up are thus resolved.

    Comment by Peter — May 19, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  3. I think that when one person communicates to another he can only describe his conceptions to that person. He can’t make them actually perceive what he is conceiving.

    So, a person could get dashed-Q in their head by talking to someone who observed Q. However, they couldn’t perceive Q simply from communicated with someone who perceived Q.

    Comment by Scott Hughes — May 19, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

  4. This is something I considered dealt with by my remark “Note that how person B’s mental state changes upon being affected by φ may depend on their current mental state; which is to say that the meaning of a particular communication may be affected by context.” Obviously if B hasn’t had the right perceptual experiences in many cases nothing A can say will be able to intentionally direct them at Q. But this is a reflection of the receptivity of B to certain utterences, not something really deep. Of course perceptual experiences aren’t required in all cases: for example mathematics.

    Comment by Peter — May 19, 2007 @ 3:26 pm

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